How do I talk about estrangement with my young children? Over the past year my husband and I have gone through a horribly painful estrangement from his parents. We were once very close and our children enjoyed nice relationships with them. As far as we know, our children have only warm, happy memories with their grandparents.
However, after struggling with alcoholism, anxiety, and depression for many years, my husband disclosed to me abuse that took place in his home when he was a young child. His parents have refused to listen, have said his memories are false, and have been completely unable to maintain basic decency when my husband has attempted to speak with them. I feel strongly that it is not safe for my children to have a relationship with them moving forward.
I come from a long line of generational trauma myself. My mother died 11 years ago and my father has Alzheimer’s. If there was any possibility of making it work with my husband’s parents, we would. We have attempted family therapy with them, but each time, the therapists have said it would be more harmful than not for my husband to attend, because his parents refuse to listen.
Our older son has asked about them only two or three times in the past year. I do not want to keep secrets from our children, but I also don’t want to overburden them with grown-up issues. How do we navigate this as our children grow and have more questions for us?
Los Angeles, California
This is a very painful situation, and I’m glad that you want to be sensitive to your children’s feelings in a way that sounds like you and your husband didn’t experience growing up. Honoring your children’s emotional worlds and then acting in their best interests is an important step in ending generational trauma.
At the same time, I want to make sure that you’re not underestimating the long-term consequences of the decision to cut your husband’s parents out of your children’s lives. Even when absolutely necessary and healthy, such a choice can have ripple effects that last for generations. For this reason, before we discuss the question of how to talk to your children about the estrangement, let’s first explore how the choice to cut ties will likely play out for them in the years ahead.
As we explore this, I want to emphasize that whatever choice you make is understandable, and I can imagine how devastating it must have been for your husband to have suffered abuse as a child and then have his parents shut him down when he confronted them. Because you say that you also suffered from trauma, watching these distressing interactions might have triggered your own anger or sense of helplessness, and one way many of us react to feeling helpless is to attempt to regain control: If you refuse to see the truth, then we refuse to see you.
As adults, we have the freedom to choose whether or not to maintain a relationship with our parents, because we no longer depend on them for our survival. But another benefit of adulthood is that we have the ability to understand our parents as flawed and sometimes damaged people with significant limitations who, for all kinds of reasons, couldn’t be the parents we desperately needed. To be clear, no amount of adult perspective excuses their behavior or takes away from the pain they caused. But with that perspective and power comes a great responsibility, because the adults are making decisions not just for themselves but for the children in their lives. This perspective helps you to assess: Do your husband’s parents’ limitations outweigh the benefits of their being involved, in a form that you get to choose, in your children’s lives?
If you have reason to believe that they will harm your children, then clearly they shouldn’t have access to them. Your letter, however, paints a different picture of them as grandparents: warm and kind to your children—and, before they were confronted about your husband’s childhood, equally warm and kind to both of you. You say you feel strongly that it’s not safe for your children to have a relationship with their grandparents going forward, but you don’t mention why you feel that way and whether your husband agrees. Does he also believe that his parents pose a threat, even though your children “have only warm, happy memories” with them?
Already, your son is asking about his grandparents, and while you say that he has asked about his grandparents “only” two or three times in the past year, in fact that’s a lot for a young child, and keep in mind that he might not have asked about his grandparents every time he missed them. As your children grow, there will be many reminders of their grandparents’ absence—making a family tree in school, seeing their friends’ grandparents being part of their lives, going through old photo albums and seeing strangers or, alternatively, noticing the purposeful removal of the older generation. There are also tricky situations to anticipate—family occasions or holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas that your kids will miss out on attending because their grandparents will be there; awkwardness with cousins or other relatives their age who have nice relationships with these grandparents and might talk about them in front of your kids; aunts and uncles who might take issue with your husband’s estrangement of their parents, which would create tension with your husband and therefore your children. There’s also the question of what happens if the grandparents try to send birthday gifts or contact the kids and they want to respond—but know they shouldn’t and feel burdened by that emotional bind. Finally, if your kids eventually have their own children, and they witness the warm relationship you have with their children, they might feel resentful that they were denied the opportunity to have this with their own grandparents.
You write that you don’t want to “overburden them with grown-up issues,” but if you can’t articulate how your husband’s parents are a danger to your children, then cutting off this warm relationship that has the potential to develop into something quite meaningful would indeed be burdening them with grown-up issues that exist only among you adults.
Another thing you may want to consider: Many people like to believe that if, in the future, they reconcile, other relationships burdened by the estrangement will naturally heal as well. But that’s often not the case. If you do someday reconcile, the grandparents will by then be strangers to your kids. It will be difficult for them to form any relationship with them, especially because your kids might feel somehow disloyal if they see their grandparents as good people, knowing that you’ve seen them as bad.
So where does all of this leave you? I’d suggest that you and your husband each see a separate individual therapist to process your respective feelings toward his parents (and for you to understand more about where you might be conflating your past with his), and to gain clarity on whether they truly pose a current danger to your children. If they do, you’ll have an ongoing conversation with your kids over the years about the estrangement, which will change depending on their ages and the kinds of questions they have. Because your children are young, you might start by answering your son’s questions with something like “We aren’t going to be seeing your grandparents right now. The adults have something to work out.” If your son asks, “What are you trying to work out?” you can say, “It’s an adult problem, but I’ll let you know if things change. We would very much like that to happen but don’t know if it will.” If the estrangement continues, and your children want to know why you couldn’t work it out, you might say, “We all tried very hard to see the other person’s perspective, but we just couldn’t, and we wish it were different.” In these conversations, the goal is to create an open dialogue so that the topic of the grandparents doesn’t feel like it’s off-limits, and in that spirit you might share that you, too, are sad about the estrangement. You’ll also want to make sure to check in with your children about how they feel and validate whatever they share—sadness, anger, loss, confusion.
As they get older, their questions will get more specific, and eventually your husband might say, “I had a difficult relationship with my parents and they didn’t treat me well when I was young. This has caused a lot of tension between us that we were never able to resolve.” You’ll know how much of the story to share based on their maturity and the kinds of questions they ask.
If, however, you conclude through the therapy that the grandparents don’t pose a danger to your children, you might consider finding a way to accept that they aren’t able to acknowledge the pain they caused your husband, and encouraging your husband to do some much-needed grief work with a therapist, so that you as a family can be around them, in whatever limited way you choose. This might include setting boundaries, such as supervised visits so you can see how they act around your kids, or letting them know that if they aren’t kind to either of you in front of the kids, the visit will have to end.
Remember that no matter what you do now, your children will one day become young adults who can easily contact their grandparents if they’re still alive. It’s important to let them know that you support whatever relationship they choose to have with their grandparents one day and are always available to answer any questions they have.
In the midst of this challenging situation, it might help to take a deep breath and remember to give yourselves credit for being parents who want to end the cycle of generational trauma and are reaching out for help to do so. What is unresolved inevitably gets passed to the next generation, and your kids will benefit from the effort you and your husband are putting in to changing the narrative for them and the generations that come after.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.